Power plant lakes

As power plants across East Texas are shuddered and the properties go up for sale, questions arise about future access by fishermen to the lakes adjacent to them.

While it might not be hard for fishermen to find themselves in hot water right now, doing so during the winter months could get more difficult on lakes in the future.

There is a good chance that power plant lakes in East Texas could go away. No, they are not going to dry up and blow away in a cloud of dust, but at least five Northeast Texas lakes and some others around the state could be sold and closed to the public after ending up in private hands.

Typically, Texas lakes are public reservoirs owned by water authorities as water supply reservoirs or the federal government as flood control facilities. In the case of lakes like Brandy Branch, Fairfield, Martin Lake, Monticello and Lake Welsh, ownership is in the hands of utility companies, and thus privately owned. However, the lakes have always been open to the public through adjacent state parks or private concessions.

The issue is that the lakes were built as cooling ponds for electricity generating coal-fired power plants built on the shoreline. These days the use of coal has fallen out of favor and as the plants are taken offline, the lakes and surrounding properties go from assets to liabilities.

The plant at Lake Fairfield was mothballed in 2018, and earlier this year Luminant put the lake and surrounding land, including a state park, up for sale for $110 million.

It is the first of the dominoes to fall. Others like Monticello, which has already been closed to public fishing but not yet for sale, have also been shut down and the remainder are scheduled to be taken offline no later than 2028.

Although the issue is not restricted to Northeast Texas, within driving range of Tyler and Longview is about 12,000 acres of power plant waters.

“We continue to explore options to maintain or restore angler access to these fisheries following plant closures, but most involve a complex set of issues such as land ownership of the reservoir footprint and shoreline, maintenance of lease agreements with the landowner for operations of boat ramps and park areas, funding/authority for potential land acquisitions, navigability and state ownership of the impounded creek, water rights that were likely originally issued specifically for power plant cooling, potential costs associated with pumping and conveyance of water into the reservoirs to maintain lake levels, size of the reservoir drainage and amount of rainfall captured, and the costs and liability for maintenance of dams long-term,” explained Tim Birdsong, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries deputy director.

Except for smaller lakes within state parks, the department does not and has not ever operated a lake, but possibly the best hope is that the State Parks Division steps in as a white knight to maintain public access to the lakes. Once the financial doormat of the department, Parks has had an infusion of cash in recent years from greater access to the state’s sporting good tax fund. Looking at Fairfield or Martin Creek, it is easy to see a massive facility that could include a state park, lake and wildlife management area on additional land owned by the power company.

However, for the reasons Birdsong noted, it could be a greater hurdle than the department is able to take on.

“The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department continues to work with Luminant (Fairfield owner) and has entered into an agreement extending park operation until fall of 2022. The agreement is contingent upon sale of the property. We are aware that Luminant has begun searching for a new landowner for the property and TPWD looks forward to working with any potential new partners for continued operations of Fairfield Lake State Park,” said TPWD spokesperson Stephanie Garcia.

In contrast to Fairfield, TPWD does own the park at Martin Creek, but not the water or other power plant facility acreage.

“Martin Creek Lake State Park is owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, so park operations would not be affected by the sale of adjacent land. If the property surrounding the park is ever sold, we would work with our neighbors to ensure access to the lake is sustainable and comfortable for everyone,” Garcia explained.

Birdsong added at this time TPWD does not have any information about Luminant’s plans at the site.

Although officially closed to the public, enterprising fishermen have found access to Monticello off public roads using kayaks and small boats. That too could change if the water and land eventually go private.

Birdsong said the department has received notice from Southwest Electric Power Company of plans to close Brandy Branch in 2023 and indicated interest in working with TPWD to maintain park lands and public facilities. The company has reportedly already ended its lease with the ramp concessionaire, thus closing access by fishermen to the lake.

Again, the department’s Parks Division is not showing interest.

“We are not pursuing the purchase of any property on the Brandy Branch Reservoir,” Garcia said.

In fact, the department does not seem at all inclined to expand into large lake ownership.

“Texas State Parks is not currently pursuing the acquisition of any additional properties near power plant lakes in northeast Texas,” Garcia said.

The power plant lakes were a big part of the Texas bass fishing scene early in the Florida bass era. Hearty fishermen who could stand the winter’s cold flocked to the lake to try to catch some of the first double-digit bass in the state’s history.

That changed over the years after it was found that bass in lakes that stayed hot year-round had initial fast growth rates, but in most cased topped out too young. All of the power plant lakes have a double-digit bass record, but they came in the 1980s and early 90s. Monticello’s lake record is the best with 14.09 caught in February 1980.

However, the lakes have remained popular with fishermen primarily in the fall and spring.

TPWD biologists continue to manage the power plant locations, and while none are scheduled for additional bass stockings for biological reasons, look for that policy to be extended until it determines if the lakes remain public or not.

 
 

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